Offshore Activity Restrictions in White House, Congressional Crosshairs

Published October 20, 2017

The White House and Congress are working to modify the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which they say is holding back domestic energy production and energy independence.

At issue is the issuance of Incidental Harassment Authorizations (IHAs), or permits. Such authorization is required by people or businesses that might “take” protected marine mammals during the course of ocean activity such as oil and gas exploration and production and military exercises.

The MMPA requires the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to decide on IHA authorization within 45 days of receiving an application. NMFS claims IHA review and permitting decisions take one to three months.

Industries that work offshore say the agency consistently misses permitting deadlines, in some cases taking up to two years for authorization. In August, the American Petroleum Institute and the International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC) provided comments to NMFS saying missed deadlines result in project delays and unanticipated costs, and ambiguity in NMFS permitting requirements causes confusion about the proper implementation of unexpected and sometimes contradictory mitigation measures.

One-Two Washington Punch

The first move to address IHAs and other federal offshore regulations came in an April 28, 2017 Presidential Executive Order establishing an “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.”

The order directed the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to review offshore-related statutes and regulations to reduce barriers to domestic energy production on federal lands and waters.

Among the provisions of the executive order was a directive the Interior Department conduct “Expedited Consideration of Incidental Harassment Authorizations, Incidental-Take, and Seismic Survey Permits.”

On June 29, Rep. Mike Johnson (R–LA) introduced H.R. 3133, the Streamlining Environmental Approvals Act. The measure would reduce unnecessary permitting delays by clarifying associated procedures to increase economic development and support coastal restoration programs.

“[T]he Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was intended to manage interactions between marine mammals and commercial fishing operations in an effort to halt population declines of some of our treasured marine mammals,” Johnson said in a statement.

Johnson said the regulation’s overreach and missed permit approval deadlines halt many critical efforts aimed at protecting coastlines.

“Even worse, our Armed Forces have been forced to devote valuable resources to address regulations put in place by the MMPA,” Johnson’s statement said. “This is simply unacceptable.”

Politics vs. Science

Johnson’s bill has drawn the ire of ocean-focused environmental groups such as Oceana, which have long fought to quash offshore fossil fuel development. The group says Johnson’s bill would devastate marine mammal life, endanger the health of the oceans, and reverse years of ocean conservation.

“We must speak up for whales and other marine mammals now,” Oceana’s website urges.

IAGC President Nikki Martin says the group’s claims are simply a way to oppose geophysical surveys for oil and gas based on politics rather than science, without real thought about long-term implications of bans on offshore mapping and exploration.

“Even with the expansion of other forms of energy, this nation will remain dependent on oil and natural gas for many years to come, requiring the technology to identify and develop these resources that the geophysical industry provides,” Martin said. “Despite this fact, many in Washington disregard the geophysical industry’s longstanding record of safe and responsible exploration.

“For example, the first 3D seismic survey in the Gulf of Mexico was acquired in 1976,” said Martin. “And since then, more than one million line-miles of seismic data have been collected, alongside successful fishing and tourism industries and within a thriving ecosystem abounding with marine life.”

Good for the Environmental Goose

Martin said environmentalists critical of fossil fuel energy development often leave out of the discussion the fact the same technology used for mapping the ocean floor for oil and gas development is also used for renewable energy development such as the siting and construction of offshore wind farms.

“Geophysical surveys are used by the National Science Foundation, the USGS, and the offshore wind industry, but those surveys are not met with the same resistance or erroneous claims of harm,” Martin said. “It is important for policymakers to make informed decisions based on the multiple benefits and uses of the geophysical industry’s technology as well as the industry’s record of safe and responsible exploration.”

Kathy Hoekstra ([email protected]) writes from Saginaw, Michigan.